Biden breaks promise, won’t fire official who bullied “traumatized” deputies

Remember this? He considered it so urgently important to restore a professional tone to the White House post-Trump that he delivered the comments below on Inauguration Day 2021, just a few hours after becoming president. It was literally one of his first acts in office, a shot across the bow to deputies to alert them that boorishness towards one’s colleagues simply wouldn’t be tolerated.

On the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts.

There hadn’t been many reports since then of incivility in shops run by Biden officials, except in the shop occupied by the one official whom Biden actually can’t fire.

But now that’s changed, according to Politico. Meet Eric Lander, “one of the world’s leading geneticists,” the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, a key Biden advisor on COVID, and a grade-A jackhole by all accounts. Not an Amy-Klobuchar-level “throwing binders at the interns” degree of jackhole. But a jackhole nonetheless.

Wallace told POLITICO that Lander “retaliated against staff for speaking out and asking questions by calling them names, disparaging them, embarrassing them in front of their peers, laughing at them, shunning them, taking away their duties, and replacing them or driving them out of the agency. Numerous women have been left in tears, traumatized, and feeling vulnerable and isolated.”…

Three current and former OSTP staffers said in interviews that he has laughed or taunted subordinates in front of other colleagues or asked questions that are obviously not in the person’s area of expertise until they admit they don’t know the answer. Six current and former OSTP staffers said that while he bullies men and women, he appears to take delight in trying to embarrass female colleagues in front of others.

“The Joe Biden I voted for would never knowingly empower an aggressor like Lander who openly targets women by publicly humiliating, infantilizing and intimidating them into submission,” said the second OSTP staffer…

“Everyone is afraid of him,” said a third OSTP staffer. “Lander yells — screams. He’ll ask the same thing over and over but getting louder and louder each time,” said the staffer, who has witnessed his behavior.

The White House investigated and concluded that Lander’s violations of internal policy were “very, very serious and are outside the expectations of all staff within the [Executive Office of the President].” He’s since sent around a message to his deputies apologizing, but Joe Biden didn’t say on day one that incivility towards colleagues was a firing offense unless you half-heartedly apologize via email. He said you’d be fired on the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Reporters confronted Jen Psaki about that today. When should we expect the Lander termination, they asked? Sometime between now and never, she replied. Turns out there are some ifs and buts:

If Politico is right, Lander barely got a wrist-slap. He was told to be more collaborative with colleagues, such as by holding “brown-bag lunches,” but wasn’t even ordered to undergo individual training for proper workplace behavior. Training was ordered for the entire staff even though only one person there seems to be a problem. No firing, no suspension, nothing except a promise by the White House to circle back Psaki-style in a month and see if he’s behaving himself. Even TJ Ducklo got a week’s suspension for berating reporters before eventually resigning.

But whatever. I suppose it’s not a big deal for employees to be distracted and demoralized in an office that helps set, uh … COVID policy.

The unstated White House view, I’d guess, is that Lander is simply too big to fail. Most government bureaucrats are apparatchiks who can be quickly replaced with similarly talented functionaries. Lander, however, led the Human Genome Project and has been described as a “science god” even in articles about him that are otherwise unflattering. (“Anything I want to say, he’s ahead of me. With normal mortals you can see wheels grinding in their head, but with Eric you can’t.”) He’s the Antonio Brown of genetics, it seems: As obnoxious as his antics may be, you don’t cut a guy with that kind of talent lightly. Lander also has a special “in” with Joe Biden as he’s been tapped to lead the president’s “Cancer Moonshot” project, a matter dear to Biden’s heart because of his son’s tragic death from a brain tumor. If having a grade-A jackhole in charge is the price we have to pay to get us meaningfully closer to a cure for cancer, we’re all willing to pay it, right?

The wrinkle is that it’s all but impossible to believe that a character as abrasive as Lander will straighten up and fly right after decades of intimidating those around him. His personality is what it is; he may stay out of trouble for a few months but eventually he’ll revert to being himself. That’s when this will get politically sticky for Biden. Everyone’s entitled to a second chance, notwithstanding the president’s day-one announcement of a zero-tolerance policy. But Lander’s certainly going to blow that chance. What then?

House Republicans will have a chance to ask him tomorrow. Stay tuned.

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